Life brings with it many lessons, some we are grateful to have learned, and some we could do without. As I listen to this week’s 9/11 remembrances I reflect on the lessons that horrific event and its aftermath taught me. Some I would learn all over again, but for the event that taught me them.
I learned in the neat rows and squares of my monthly calendar that life was not neat, that I would never look at the beginning days of this month as I had before – each one leading up to my birthday on the tenth. Rather forevermore I would look directly beyond the tenth day to the eleventh, a day whose square would now loom larger than all the others on its row, groaning against the grief it seeks to contain but cannot.
I learned in the piercing fear that gripped my mind that I was truly an adult, vested with responsibilities but no real control in an at times cruel and chaotic world. How this had escaped me before the age of thirty-eight I do not know.
I learned in the unfurled flags, calming speeches, and tearful embraces that our nation could indeed band together like no other, mourning while supporting, rebuilding while remembering, so strong in its weakest moment, creating a cocoon within which we all could heal. Sometimes I long for that bittersweet time of loss and reunion and want it to return and save us from our current selves. Shame on me? Shame on us?
I learned in the President’s national address that I could put aside my political disagreements with a man I did not elect and turn to him for comfort, knowledge, understanding and not be left wanting. At least not then.
I learned in the insightful words of a colleague what I had forgotten - that our time here on earth is borrowed time; not the-end-all-be-all of anything, but a time for living and working and doing all for the greater good; that if it all ended tomorrow (as I was afraid it indeed might) the point was not that we would lose all purpose in dying, but that we would have served our purpose here before going there.
I learned in the heroic efforts of ordinary humans that God was here on earth that day, in that Hell; and He was there all those longs months of recovery; and He is still here with us, powering the people who must go on when they feel they cannot.
I learned in the reports from home that some I had known, but perhaps only recall from a faded yearbook image, had been there and were gone now leaving behind lives full of marriage, children, work. And in that I felt guilt, for what I am not sure. For living while they died? For not having thought of them until then? For mourning someone I was no longer entitled to mourn?
I learned in the bewildering moments after that morning that I had to put aside one human nature for another. I had to ignore my voyeuristic desires to know every detail of the horrific events that had rocked New York, Virginia, Pennsylvania and listen to my mother instincts - to protect my children from the sadness and mayhem and bone-chilling trauma being played out over and over, again and again, on televisions across America like some amazing sport’s play gone heinously wrong. I could not sit down and lean in to watch; I had to stand up and step back, pull our girls to me, and go on with the life they counted on, waiting until they were asleep before I could sit, holding my spouse’s hand, and watch with delayed horror the day’s events.
I learned in those few brief, forever destructive moments that a year’s prayer and planning to bring home our next child from overseas, could be smashed on a rock heavy and heartbreaking like the stones that fell from the towers that day, leaving us uncertain about anything: her, us, our nation, our world.
I learned in the slow melting of my numbness that God sits with me, seeping under my skin, giving me chills as his Holy Spirit stills my shaking nerves, cradles my breaking heart, fills my reservoir of tears and thaws my soul’s icy complacency. I learned that He did this then and He does it now, each and every day I let Him.
And I have learned in the recorded remembrances (some harder to hear than others) broadcast each and every year that I can be forever changed by an event I felt only peripherally, only collectively, not personally, so changed that even ten years on I must pull my car to the side of the road and weep once again.